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An Old Laptop Made New

I’m going to walk you through the process I followed to update an old laptop into a useful computer. My thinking is that if I could do this, so could anyone else, especially educators in poorer school districts or even homeschoolers.

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IBM ThinkPad T40

A friend of mine gave me an old IBM ThinkPad T40 (shown at right). It has an ebay value of around $40 (U.S.). It was built for Microsoft Windows XP and worked decently, save for the outdated software and hardware and the fact that the onbooard wifi didn’t work. I decided to make it into something a little more useful for today’s computing.

Here are some specs:

  • Intel Celeron M processor at 1.5 GHz
  • 512 MB SO-DIMM SDRAM
  • 80 GB ATA Hard Drive
  • BIOS Date: 2006-06-02
  • 6x DVD-ROM
  • 2 USB ports
  • 1 video out port
  • 2 Sound Ports (1 in, 1 out)
  • On-board modem, NIC and wifi
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The panel covering the RAM module.

As I saw it, the best and easiest course of action was to upgrade the RAM. This can arguably be said to be the most approachable upgrade for any laptop or desktop PC as it’s a fairly easy procedure and a fairly inexpensive one as well. I bought my 200-pin SO-DIMM SDRAM replacement module on Amazon, but there are many other places online where this can be procured. For those of you thinking “Chris, I’m not a computer repair technician. It’s too complex. I can’t do this,” I say “Yes, you can.” Internally computers are compartmentalized and therefore easy to work on, so long as you’re careful about electricity. Laptops are no exception. If you turn the laptop over, you will see various panels held in place with Phillips screws. The screenshot at left indicates the panel we need to open.

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T40 RAM module

Once you have removed the panel (after taking out the screw, I had to use a small knife to lift the plate up), you will see the RAM module. You will notice two clips, one on the right of the module and one on the left (if you look at the screenshot on the right, you can see that the right clip is just to the left of the screw hole). These are simply pulled out away from the RAM module. The module will pop up and can then be slid out. Make a note of its positioning to make sliding the new RAM into place easier. For my RAM update, I chose a module offering 1.2 GB of RAM, which is a tremendous upgrade as well as being the maximum supported RAM for this system. Slide the new RAM module into place, push down on it until it lies flat in its cavity and the clips will lock it down. Put the plate back on and we’re ready for the next step.

I chose to install Xubuntu Linux 12.04 LTS (Long-Term Support) 64-bit as Xubuntu 14.04 LTS presented a warning during installation stating that Celeron M processors do not support PAE (Physical Address Extension). If you have the time and the interest, I have provided a link below to an article on working around this problem. In either case, I have provided a link to Xubuntu’s download page. Once you have downloaded the ISO file, you’ll need to burn it to a DVD as an image then place the disc in the DVD-ROM drive. You’ll also need to enter the T40’s BIOS and set the DVD-ROM as the primary boot device. To enter the BIOS, you’ll need to press the Access IBM key (located in the upper left corner above the keyboard) when you first turn the laptop on and choose Start setup utility from the menu. When done, save your settings and restart the computer. Installation will begin on reboot.

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IBM ThinkPad T40 running Xubuntu Linux

The reason I chose to install Xubuntu is that it is lighter than Ubuntu in terms of hardware demands, which makes it an ideal OS for older computers. You will be guided through the installation process. When it is completed, you will be prompted to remove the disc and restart the computer. When it restarts, enter the BIOS and restore the default boot settings.  Save your settings, reboot and when the computer finishes booting, you can log in using the account created during installation. If all goes as it should, you should be greeted with a desktop like the one shown in the screenshot at left..

Regarding the on-board wifi, you will find many discussions online about this topic. Rather than try to resolve it, I went on to Amazon and purchased a Panda Mini Wifi 150 Mbs Wireless-N 24 GHz USB Adapter. It plugs right into one of the USB ports and starts working immediately. It provides a reliable connection and after a year and a half, I still have no complaints. You may want to install additional software, depending on your needs, but other than that, you now have a perfectly good computer for education, Web surfing, productivity, gaming or whatever your needs may be.

Resources

Xubuntu Linux Download Page

Lubuntu Fake PAE -Community Help Wiki